She caught my attention when I entered the café, a young woman dressed in layers on a muggy day. She sat on a high stool in the corner, her bulky jacket, worn, dull and out of place surrounded by businessmen, parents, and the kids from the tennis facility next door.
Beyond that first glance, she was no concern of mine. Earbuds in place, audio book playing, my thoughts were divided between work and what to order.
The man at the counter was familiar, his stocky frame, dark hair, tan skin and accented English pleasantly comfortable to me. We spoke but a few words each time I visited. I felt a fondness for he and his wife. Though I doubt they would have ever guessed.
Our interactions were brief. I tried to be pleasant, but I’m not the talkative sort. Just another awkward, quiet woman who showed up on occasion to order just a drink and take up space. Nothing special, nothing new. I looked over the offerings, earbuds still firmly in place.
“Do you have a tissue? I was just cry’n,” said the young woman in the bulky jacket, seated at the table behind me. Who she was talking to, I wasn’t sure. I froze, unable to turn. She didn’t mean me, did she? I went to the napkin dispenser and got a few, thinking I’d offer her some. The man at the counter took care of it first.
I pulled an earbud loose and made eye contact with the man. “That’s banana bread, right?” I asked when he came to take my order. “I’ve been craving banana bread. Oh, and a peach tea too, please.”
“Can I have an ice water?” the woman in the jacket asked as the man turned to fix my drink.
“I’m working,” he muttered, stirring the overly sweet tea that would taste more of syrup than tea. It was what I’d come to expect, the price I paid to take up space for an hour or three. “Hold on,” he told the woman.
She said something, and threw what might have been the tissue. “Ooops!” she exclaimed. I tensed, feeling trapped, unsure of what to do.
The man at the counter gave me the drink, bread, and took my card. “Chavez? Who speaks Spanish in your family?” he asked, smiling, paying the woman no mind.
“My mother-in-law. Wish I did!” I forced a laugh. I couldn’t help but wonder if he’d been hoping I’d say I spoke Spanish, so we could talk. So he could explain what was going on. It wasn’t the first for last time I wished I had learned another language. I smiled, paid, tipped, and headed to my usual table.
I glanced at the girl in the jacket, wondering why she’d been crying and what she was hoping for from the beleaguered café owner. If only I wasn’t so tired, so jaded, apathetic. I didn’t have time or energy for sympathy, though I knew I should. A guilty little part of me knew I could and should attempt to show a bit of kindness.
Excuses and selfishness took priority. Take care of yourself first, right? I was running on near empty. I had nothing left to give.
I put my earbuds back in and began to work. I had two hours before I had to be on the move once more. The woman was at another table, making noise and throwing things. An older man working on his laptop scolded her, yelled at her to sit somewhere else.
She was like a child, acting out for any sort of attention. She was grown, in her twenties, an adult woman, yet so desperate and needy.
I sighed and tried to focus.
A little girl at the other side of the café, oblivious to the drama unfolding, began singing loudly. I smiled, watching her dance around her mother. She sang the same lines over and over as she wove back and forth through the chairs.
The woman in the jacket stood on the balcony of the café. She dropped her shoe over the rail. “Hey! Can you get that for me?” she called out.
If only someone would give this girl some attention, I couldn’t help but think. Just not me. Someone better than me.
It wasn’t long before a policeman arrived and escorted her to the stairs. She went without a fuss. I absently wondered if she got her shoe back. If the barrel-chested police man with a pink face and short cropped hair was able to give her the attention and help she craved.
Surely he was trained to deal with people in crisis. He could suggest where she could go should she need help. He, of all people, would know who to call, what to do.
The little girl started singing again. Her mother was on the phone, and had been the entire time. The girl danced around the tables and chairs. Her mother put her finger to her lips and turned away. The little girl continued to happily sing-song in her joyful way.
That self-assured contentment, the simple pleasure of just being, living, singing and dancing, it was enviable to watch. She was content to just sing to herself, no audience needed, rejection unheeded.
I prayed she’d stay that way. That she wouldn’t become attention starved and desperate, or a deer in headlights, frozen and useless.